Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Blue Suede Shoes

50th Anniversary of the day Elvis died

By the beginning of 1977, when he turned 42, Elvis Presley had become a grotesque caricature of his sleek, energetic former self. Hugely overweight, his mind dulled by the pharmacopoeia he daily ingested, he was barely able to pull himself through his abbreviated concerts.

One March night in Norman, Oklahoma, during his second tour of the year, he fell asleep in the middle of dinner, almost choking on his food. “Is there much more time left?” wrote an aide in his diary. At about this time Elvis’s staff drew up a contingency plan for smuggling his body back home to Graceland, his Memphis mansion, in case they needed to cover up a fatal overdose on the road.

Three nights after Norman, Elvis was in Alexandria, Louisiana, where a local journalist complained that the star was on stage for less than an hour and “was impossible to understand.” At the next stop, in Baton Rouge, Presley didn’t go on at all. He was unable to get out of his hotel bed, and his manager, Col. Tom Parker, cancelled the rest of the tour.

In mid-April Elvis flew to Las Vegas; according to his cousin and close aide Billy Smith, the reason for the trip was to get prescriptions from a Las Vegas doctor. The singer had had a tiff with his Memphis physician and chief prescriber, Dr. George Nichopoulos, and was tapping another source.

On April 21 the year’s third tour began, a Midwestern swing. The reviews “ranged from concern for his health to perplexity over how little he seemed to care,” writes Presley’s most assiduous biographer, Peter Guralnick; according to a Detroit journalist, Elvis “stunk the joint out” in that city. Fans, too, Guralnick writes, “were becoming increasingly voluble about their disappointment, but it all seemed to go right past Elvis, whose world was now confined almost entirely to his room and his [spiritualism] books.” And, one might add, to his tranquilizers and sedatives.

When the next tour started, in Knoxville, Tennessee, on May 20, “there was no longer any pretense of keeping up appearances,” Guralnick writes. “The idea was simply to get Elvis out onstage and keep him upright for the hour he was scheduled to perform.” So it went for the rest of that spring, with Presley stumbling and lurching through show after show. One June concert in Omaha was especially bad; to Guralnick, listening to a recording made of the show, Elvis “gives the impression of a man crying out for help when he knows help will not come.” As the tour promoter Tom Hulett said, “It was like he was saying, ‘Okay, here I am, I’m dying, f--- it.’”

From the end of June through July and into mid-August, Presley stayed at home, rarely leaving his bedroom. Sometimes his girlfriend, Ginger Alden, was with him, sometimes not; it was an on-and-off relationship. After sunrise on August 16, he and Ginger went to bed (he kept an inverted schedule). At about 8 a.m. he still hadn’t fallen asleep, and he told Ginger he was going into the bathroom to read. Awaking at about 1:30 p.m., she found herself alone in bed and went to check on him. Entering the bathroom, she found him lying on the carpet, his face in a puddle of vomit. There was a bathroom intercom; she called downstairs and told a bodyguard that something was horribly wrong. Within minutes the bathroom was crowded with people “surrounding the almost unrecognizable body,” Guralnick writes. “[Presley’s] face was swollen and purplish, the tongue was discolored and sticking out of his mouth, the eyeballs blood red.” An ambulance sped him to Baptist Memorial Hospital, where efforts to revive him were futile. He was pronounced dead at 3:30 p.m.

The autopsy, which began at 7 p.m., was still going on when the Shelby County medical examiner, Dr. Jerry Francisco, told the gathered press that Elvis Presley had died of cardiac arrhythmia. This was the sanitized version, which Francisco would stick to. Meanwhile, Baptist Hospital sent blood and other fluid and tissue samples to Bio-Science Laboratories in California, one of the nation’s top toxicology labs. Bio-Science found 14 drugs in Elvis’s system, 10 in significant quantities. Codeine was present at 10 times the therapeutic level, methaqualone (Quaalude) at a toxic level, and three others on the toxic borderline. The conclusion was clear: Elvis died from polypharmacy, or the simultaneous use of multiple drugs. Actually, as Charles Thompson and James Cole point out in their book The Death of Elvis, “the codeine alone, in lower concentrations than Elvis’s, had put people in their graves.”

On the evening of August 16 the body was taken to Memphis Funeral Home for burial preparations. The next morning Presley was brought back to Graceland, where 50,000 people had already gathered outside the gates. Thirty National Guardsmen, 80 policemen, and 40 sheriff’s deputies were there to control the crowd, and three police helicopters hovered overhead. South Central Bell asked Memphians to keep phone calls to a minimum; the circuits were overloaded.

A viewing was scheduled for 3 p.m., to last until 5. The open coffin sat in Graceland’s foyer, just inside the front door, and fans filed past four abreast. Several mourners fainted beside the coffin; outside in the 90-degree heat hundreds more fainted. “Many, revived with rubber gloves filled with ice, staggered back into the crowd and fainted again,” said a wire-service report. At 5 p.m. the viewing was extended for another 90 minutes. At 6:30 an estimated 10,000 fans were still waiting to view the body, but the police closed Graceland’s gates. The crowd thinned, though thousands remained overnight.

The funeral service was held at Graceland at 2 p.m. on August 18. Presley was eulogized by C. W. Bradley, a local minister, who said, “Elvis would not want anyone to think that he had no flaws or faults. But now that he’s gone, I find it more helpful to remember his good qualities, and I hope you do, too.” Then a 49-car cortege, including 17 white Cadillacs, accompanied the body to Forest Hill cemetery. The road was lined with at least 15,000 fans. After a brief service the body was interred. Eleven days after the funeral there was a bungled attempt to steal the corpse, and in late October both Presley and his mother, Gladys, were reburied at Graceland, where they remain.

So many millions of words have been written about the trajectory of Elvis’s life that it’s impossible to say anything really original. Contemplating his depleted final months, one’s mind inevitably turns to the vibrant music of his youth, “That’s Alright,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and dozens more, or even to the less assured but passionate songs of his brief reflowering, circa 1968 to ’70, “Suspicious Minds,” “If I Can Dream,” and so on. We have these recordings forever, and the sad later stumblings and sordid death can never erase them, or dim the brightness they radiate.

Not that remembering past glories necessarily consoled the forty-something Elvis, who must have lived with an especially acute sense of how far he had fallen. But surely, escaping now and then from his unhappiness, his narcotized fog, he found some fugitive moments of pride in the way he had so effortlessly tapped into our unconscious yearning for freedom and redirected the path of modern American culture.


At 7:21 AM, Blogger your said...

phentermine nice :)

At 11:51 AM, Blogger your said...

phentermine nice :)

At 12:39 PM, Blogger benning said...

Thanks for the reminder. At that time my musical interests were pretty much confined to the Beatles in their solo careers, and other artists. I remember how shocking Elvis' death was, for he was still so young.

The sordid speculation came quickly. I wonder why no one had him committed to a hospital to dry out. He needed help and nobody had the stones to give it. Col. Parker must have known how bad it was before it reached the climax. What an asshat he was.

At 3:24 PM, Blogger American Crusader said...

I was also into the Beatles and the Stones at that time. I didn't start appreciating Elvis until much later.


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